Karaites, Come Home


In the dim Hopper light of Israelís dusk, the moon rises over Arad. Yitzchak Sergani looks at his watch. It is exactly 5 p.m., Jan. 7. Five minutes later, the moon is seen in Ofakim. Eight minutes later, it is above Maíale Adumim. Twenty-seven minutes later, heavy clouds part over Ashdod and Magdi Shmuel sees the moon. He watches the white aureole, the holiness of it. The night was a like a Genesis verse, God placing lights in the firmament to be a sign unto the seasons. Magdi observes the sky for 10 minutes more; to observe ó this is what it means to be an observant Jew. The moon is covered over by clouds.The sky watchers had seen enough and quickly spread the word. In antiquity, the new moonís sighting over Israel was heralded from hilltop to hilltop; in modern Israel, from laptop to laptop. Nehemia Gordon e-mails around the world, ìHappy Rosh Chodesh (New Moon Day)!î It was the new month of Shevat.

Of course, for millions of other Jews, the new month began indoors and 24 hours earlier, without lunar visibility but according to the remarkably prescient calculations of the talmudic calendar. But sky watchers such as Yitzchak Sergani and Magdi Shmuel are not ordinary Jews, they are Karaites, a group who for several millennia rejected the idea that the rabbis of the Talmud possessed a Sinai-like authority. The Talmud was worth reading, said the Karaites, but was essentially a flawed document like anything from the hand of man. Karaites, literally meaning ìPeople of the Scripture,î followed the Torahís written word as piety and good sense permits.

Uniformity in observance is not as high a value among Karaites, as it is among the denominationally fractured mainstream Jews. Anan Ben-David, perhaps the most revered Karaite Hacham (wise man), used to teach, ìSearch thoroughly in the Torah and do not rely on my opinion.

Karaites, like other Jews, trace themselves as far back as Sinai, or at least as far back as the northern Kingdom of Israel that split from the southern Kingdom of Judea after Solomonís time. Defeated by the Assyrians and exiled (several centuries before the Christian calendar), the tribes of the northern Kingdom disappeared into the murkiness of ancient history: They became known as the Ten Lost Tribes. The Kingdom of Judea (the Jews) eventually were exiled, too. In exile, they created the Babylonian Talmud, the root religious constitution from which Ashkenaz, Sephard and all Jewish denominations spring.

That was not an experience, though, that the Karaites or other Lost Tribes shared. As the Talmudís hegemony spread, some Karaites were forced to live by its rules as decreed by various governments that designated what kind of Judaism would be ìofficial.î Eight centuries into the Common Era, the division that once manifested itself in two Jewish kingdoms became bitter once more. Karaites ó said to be 40 percent of the Jewish population at their peak ó forbade their children to marry any Jew but a Karaite. The rabbis responded with acrimonious responsa.Ironically, the Karaites adapted to exile in similar ways as the other Jews, such as letting prayer substitute for the animal sacrifices. They removed their shoes before prayer, as God commanded Moses. Theyíd use the Talmud as a reference, but they ruled by the ancient scrolls. If it was clear from Scripture that the Haggadah was to be read only on the first night of Passover, and that there was no authority for the diaspora days the rabbis added on, then Karaites would have only one Seder and no extra days. Their prayers, heavily based on the Psalms (Scripture) included the Shema (Scripture) but not the Amidah (rabbinic). Theyíd wear a tallit, but never tefillin; where the Talmud saw a mitzvah, they saw metaphor.Karaite kashrut laws are stricter. Some question the eating of eggs. Others challenge the idea that a chicken could be kosher because the only birds that are known to be explicitly pure are doves, pigeons, and quails. A Karaite kashrut supervisory group declared that ìno juice from Tropicana should be consumed if it contains sugar. … The most common way for sugar producers to process their sugar involves [some] non-kosher elements.î You see, rabbinic standards of kashrut use a Talmudic leniency of allowing a one-sixtieth level of impurity. Therefore, says the Karaites, Rabbanite certifications ìwill appear on countless foods that are actually non-kosher!

Most Karaites, though, use Rabbanite supervision. And the 19-year calendar cycle of the Rabbanites ó thatís what the Karaites call you, dear reader, ìRabbanites,î the people of the rabbis ó is now basically used by the Karaites, too, in their bid to remain one people with the mainstream Jews. Their months, though, rely on the moonís visibility to the naked eye, and Karaite holidays can fall on any day of the week.ìAlthough our brothers the Rabbanites, abandoned the sighting of the New Moon,î says Magdi Shmuel with resignation, ìthey know it to be the correct law.îIn the United States, where there were once several communities there is now one Karaite synagogue. Joseph Pessah, the acting ìravî of Congregation Bínai Israel-Karaite Jews of America, in Daly City, Calif., says there are some 1,200 Karaites in the U.S., mostly in California with a less organized group in upstate New York, near Rochester.In Israel, there are 20,000 Karaites, mostly living in the southern part of the country, according to Haaretz. In December, the Karaite community went to court to force the Religious Affairs Ministry and the Interior Ministry to grant it funding so that it can provide religious services, like Rabbanite Jewish communities. They serve in the army, but are assimilating and intermarrying with the Rabbanite Israelis; only 30 percent are said to be religiously observant.

Rabbi Simcha Krauss, president of the Rabbinical Zionists of America, and Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, expected to be named head of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, both said there was a lingering resentment by mainstream Jews toward Karaites because the Karaites successfully appealed to the Nazis for an exemption from being persecuted as Jews. Some Rabbanites actually supported the Karaite claim for exemptions out of mercy for their ancient ties. The Nazis ended up killing more than 10,000 Karaites anyway, mostly from the Crimean.

Rabbi Greenberg adds, ìWhen the rabbis wrote the prayer Tzur Yisroel,î on behalf of the kingdoms of Judea and Israel, ìthe Kingdom of Israel had long since died; the Ten Tribes were already gone for 500 years,î explains Greenberg. ìThe rabbis wrote that prayer with the same nostalgia I now feel about the Karaites. Thereís a sadness of how we let ourselves slip away, how when the kingdoms split we should have tried so much harder to stay together. Thereís a certain sense of grief because of all the Jews weíve lost, not only through persecution, but through a breakdown in communications and broken relationships.îOn Monday, Feb. 7, Nehemia Gordon saw Adarís new moon. It was a heavenly Jerusalem night. There were no clouds and visibility was excellent. Jonathan Markís e-mail address is jonathan @jewishweek.org